YESvember!

Late fall always seems to bring the excitement. As southbound migration begins to slow down, the potential for weird surprises comes to a peak around the time that expected wintering birds start to arrive. November is a great time of year to get out and explore personal patches, and it helps to take note of long-term weather patterns and local conditions to maximize the efficiency of search time. This month often brings some of my favorite birding moments of any given year due to the consistent unpredictability. I often find myself down by the seashore, looking for unusual vagrants among the residents and more typical travelers. Flocks of gulls and swarms of passage passerines are great example opportunities to turn up something interesting, and they often provide plenty of spectacle themselves.

Geese are some of the most conspicuous arrivals in November. They are loud, obvious, and abundant, and lost geese have a well-documented tendency to fall in with crowds of common species. I’ve been keeping a close eye on the burgeoning numbers of waterfowl at Hendrickson Park, watching closely for last winter’s most famous visitor. Off-track birds sometimes return to the same locations for years on end, and Dad is especially hopeful that his friend will return to us soon. So far, all of the geese at the lake have black feet, but migrants have been slightly delayed in their journey to our latitude. Anything is possible. I did, however, spot a Cackling Goose among the countless Canadas on Friday afternoon. It wasn’t the most obvious individual, but its short bill, frosty plumage, and squarish head stood out from the crowd.

I returned to Hendrickson on Saturday, and I located a second Cackling Goose after refinding the bird from the previous evening. This individual was much more conspicuous, with a stubby little bill affixed to its blocky head. This tiny, adorable gooselet looks remarkably similar to the bird that spent the season here from 2016 to 2017. Photos on eBird reveal that there have been several different Cackling Geese observed at this site over the past year or so, but the long-staying individual was distinctly diminutive and cartoonishly cute. Comparing my previous photos to the most recent series of the “new” goose, I think there’s a real possibility that this is a returning bird.

The gaggle of geese lounging on the lakeshore contained a mix of beefy locals and smaller migrants. The degree of variation in this species is impressive, even with the Cackling clan removed and recognized as biologically separate. I noticed a compact Canada with a thin, dusky chinstrap that resulted in an atypical dark-faced look. This bird, too, looked rather familiar, bearing more than a passing resemblance to a migrant that kept the company of last winter’s Cackler. Only time will tell if these are the only rarities to recur at this location.

There were plenty of gulls, cormorants, and ducks roosting alongside the geese. An American Coot was another indicator of the turning seasons, and I was delighted to see a handsome pair of Wood Ducks paddling out towards the center of the water feature. The late morning light illuminated the bright blue-green eyes of the cormorants perfectly. It is always a treat to observe this hidden feature in the field: it lends a lot of charm to an already quirky and entertaining bird.

When I finished up in Valley Stream, I headed east towards Montauk. My parents invited me to visit them at their weekend campsite in Hither Hills, and the East End birding scene heats up as the weather cools down. After meeting with my family and friends at the Montauk Brewing Company, I set about combing the area for goodies. I put in some time scanning Lake Montauk from multiple vantage points, but I found no sign of the female Brown Booby that lingered in the region from September into November. I can only hope that she got out of town ahead of the cold snap that came through at the end of the week. That same front seems to have ferried in a number of northern visitors, and I was pleased to find Purple Sandpiper, American Pipit, and a variety of seabirds during my scouting. One of the Common Loons I observed was still transitioning out of its dapper summer garb, creating an odd patchwork plumage.

I set up my scope at the Point’s restaurant patio as the sun sank lower in the sky, and I was not disappointed with my impromptu survey. Large feeding flocks of Bonaparte’s Gulls, several hundred strong, were a welcome sight after too many years with reduced numbers of these birds around the Island. There were good numbers of Laughers and other gulls mixed in with the throngs. I even picked out a pair of Great Shearwaters tailing the fishing boats close to shore. I drove back to the campground at dusk, enjoying dinner, drinks, and games before turning in for the night.

I woke up at 4 AM on Sunday, slipping out of the camper as silently as I could to do some owling. I searched at several spots in Hither Hills and Hither Woods State Parks, connecting with multiple Screech-Owls and a Great Horned Owl along the way. A tiny shadow that silently flew in to investigate my whistled Saw-whet impression caught me off guard. Interestingly, it revealed itself as a curious Screech-Owl when I got a glimpse of its ear tufts and it began vocalizing. One wonders what goes on in the world of these nocturnal predators when they cross paths with one another in the dark. As sunrise drew near, I made tracks to Camp Hero State Park and prepared for a dawn seawatch atop the bluffs. The lights came on slowly, but the colors and patterns revealed by the early morning glow were well worth the wait.

I’d been communicating with Anthony about coordinating our search efforts in the Hamptons, and he met me at Camp Hero just as the sun was peeking above the horizon. Mere minutes after he turned his optics towards the sea, he called out the name of a bird I was not expecting to hear: Pacific Loon! Anthony got me on the bird as it came perpendicular with out position and continued flying east towards the Point. I immediately saw that it was smaller than a Common Loon, with a less blocky profile and much faster wingbeats. It also had larger trailing feet and a more rounded head than a similarly-sized Red-throated Loon. The contrast between the dark upperparts and the clean white underparts was stark, and there was no evidence of pale speckling or paneling on the back. The bill was straight and intermediate between the two expected species, and the sharp line between dark and light on the neck lacked the white indentations of a Common or the dusky smudging of a young Red-throat. When the bird disappeared from sight, we exchanged high-fives in celebration of our good fortune. This was not only a state bird, but also my 400th year bird of 2017! Not bad for not being certain about setting a goal back in January!

The remainder of our vigil continued to impress. I refound one of the shearwaters from the day before, and Anthony spied a pair of early Razorbills. A Gray Seal was seen bobbing in the surf, and a spout just beyond the breakers drew immediately grabbed our attention. A Minke Whale’s dorsal fin broke the surface, but when we lowered our binoculars we saw a long, flat object rising rising from the waves in the same location. Was that a pectoral fin? The next blow was also followed by a Minke, but the third and fourth revealed a Humpback Whale that was seemingly moving in close association with its smaller cousin. We eventually left the cliffs to sweep the surrounding area for additional birds. Theodore Roosevelt County Park and South Lake Drive were quiet, but we were surprised by a Parasitic Jaeger and a flock of Snow Buntings on the western side of the Lake Montauk Inlet. The final treat of the day was a large pod of dolphins foraging north of Culloden Point. Through Anthony’s stronger scope, we were stunned to see the tan and gray hourglass markings that identified them as Short-beaked Common Dolphins, a species neither of us had ever seen from land before. It seems that the November shock factor isn’t limited to birds! You just never know what you’ll find!

I made a few more stops on my way back to Nassau, pausing at Seatuck Creek in Eastport to add a drake Eurasian Wigeon to my year total and briefly passing through Jones Beach just to see if there was any noteworthy activity. I was ready to crash by the time I made it home, satisfied but exhausted from a full weekend. I’ll be back out at Montauk soon enough…I only hope for similar successes next time!

Year List Update, November 12 – 402 Species (+ American Pipit, Pacific Loon, Parasitic Jaeger, Eurasian Wigeon)

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In Memoriam

The odds of survival are rarely good for a bird so far from home, but we always wish for a miracle. Many of us hope, perhaps selfishly, that at the very least we don’t have to see them go when they go. An individual that simply disappears could still be out there, and it’s never easy knowing for certain that such an incredible story has a sad ending. Those of us who study nature see the cycle of life and death played out time and time again, but at times we feel such a loss a little more personally. These circumstances are especially unfortunate, as a bird that was apparently healthy and active even after a unbelievable trans-Atlantic journey was cut short unnaturally by a collision with a vehicle. I take some solace in the knowledge that this incredible little traveler’s final resting place will be an institution of science, as well as finding peace in the pure, joyous wonderment that this remarkable discovery brought to so many people. This was truly a once-in-a-lifetime event, and I’m confident the smiles and successes will outweigh the sorrow in our memories.

Rest In Peace, Corn Crake
November 9, 2017. Cedar Beach, Suffolk County, NY
Hereafter preserved at the American Museum of Natural History

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Photo Credit: Sean Sime

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Jimmy Crake Corn

Birding often requires a great deal planning and practice, especially when the goal is to find or chase rarities. The more you know, the more you get to see. I like to keep my various lists, read historical data, and pore over the finer points of challenging IDs to improve my fieldcraft. In general, I work hard to be prepared for anything. However, I love it when a spontaneous, completely unexpected discovery comes out of nowhere and rocks my world. Rare bird alerts, by nature, are full of surprises, but I was totally floored when I opened my email on an otherwise ordinary day to see a fateful message from Ken and Sue Feustel.

A Corn Crake (this is no joke) is currently feeding on the north shoulder of the Ocean Parkway east of the Cedar Beach marina.” Never before has my inbox been graced by a report so incredible that the messenger felt obligated to announce that they weren’t pulling an elaborate prank. This species is a particularly enigmatic member of the ever-secretive rail family. Most rallids are difficult to locate even in areas where they are abundant, though many are known to migrate and wander long distances. These journeys sometimes bring them to unexpected places, and this bird was very far from home. Corn Crakes breed in Eurasian meadows, spending the winter in southern Africa. There are several North American records of individuals who got lost on this long-distance flight and wound up on the wrong continent, but the vast majority of these are over 100 years old. Very few individuals have been seen here in recent history, mostly consisting of specimens provided by hunters and cats. A handful of others were identified or announced too late for followup. One Newfoundland record was seen by only “half a dozen” birders before disappearing forever. There has never really been a properly chaseable Corn Crake in this hemisphere, certainly not since the dawn of modern birding. Until now.

I was in turmoil from the moment I read the email. I could not, would not miss this bird. Leave it to the once-in-a-lifetime vagrant to show up during the work week! At my first opportunity, I rushed homewards. Miriam, my fearless and endlessly supportive co-pilot, met me at the train station with her binoculars and camera so we could save precious minutes of remaining daylight. We made our way south to the Jones Beach barrier island and headed east. Brendan, Taylor, Shai, Mike, and dozens of other birders had already seen the crake over the course of the day. I was assured that it had been fairly cooperative, moving in and out of cover as it worked the brushy edge of the lawn beside the parkway. When we finally arrived at the stakeout, folks returning to their cars flashed smiles and thumbs up in our direction. I led the charge to the westbound roadside, and it wasn’t long before the mega-rare bird emerged from hiding.

The Corn Crake was quite unlike anything else I’ve seen before. Although its form was broadly reminiscent of Soras and other related birds, its relatively large size and sturdier structure set it apart. The intricate patterns of black and brown feathers on its back provided camouflage among the tangles but looked absolutely stunning in the open. Its intentional, deliberate gait and low-slung posture were unfamiliar and un-birdlike, though it looked more classically avian when it perked up like a periscope or darted roadrunner-style into the bushes.

In addition to being an unusual and interesting bird, this is easily one of the rarest creatures I will ever see in the Western Hemisphere. With the near absence of records outside the era of shotgun ornithology, I would guess that fewer than a dozen birders had observed a Corn Crake in North America before this report. The incredibly low rate of detection is certainly compounded by the bird’s inherently furtive habits. As a result, most ABA listers wouldn’t include it on even their wildest wishlists. It’s not really “on the radar” as something to watch for, being totally absent from the esteemed Sibley Guide and most other American birding resources. Sorting my United States life list by frequency on eBird (since North America and the ABA area cannot be sorted this way) the Corn Crake has now unseated even the Shelduck as the Mega of Megas. Best of all, it comes largely free of the provenance controversy that surrounds exotic waterfowl and cagebird candidates!

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The high quality of this bird and the way its discovery blindsided me add up to one of the most memorable sagas of my birding career this far. I expect that I’ll look back on our successful chase as a lifelong hobby highlight. My most profuse thanks to Ken and Sue for rapidly getting the word out on their truly remarkable find, and special shoutouts to the other birders who got to enjoy the crake and help keep tabs on it. What a mindblowing, unforgettable experience!

Year List Update, November 7 – 398 Species (+ Corn Crake)

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It’s a Shore Thing

Birders and other ecology enthusiasts track the seasonal cycle very closely. Through observation of the annual changes in conditions, we refine our expectations and our understanding of how the natural world works. Every year is different, though, and sometimes nature surprises us. I have been quoted as saying that “summer means shorebirds,” but the 2017 migration season has extended the excitement a bit. In addition to the wayward New Jersey Greenshank that I chased last weekend, there have been a number of late, lingering shorebirds popping up around Long Island. The most notable of these were four Hudsonian Godwits discovered at Heckscher State Park. After seeing frequent reports and stunning photographs of the birds all week, I couldn’t resist heading out to try my luck on Saturday morning. As soon as I arrived at the site, one of the godwits flew across the parking lot entrance road and settled with two of its companions in a grassy puddle at the edge of the concrete.

This species evaded me for many years, mostly because Hudwits typically make very few stops on their migration between the extreme northern and southern reaches of the Americas. This group, unfortunately, is apparently having a rough journey, which may account for their multi-day stay on the Island. Although two individuals are the picture of health, another has apparently injured its right leg and the matching wing. The fourth bird is in an even worse state, with large growths on its face and left leg. All three individuals present were still feeding actively, rushing to refuel so they can continue their flight south. Due to their focused foraging, the godwits paid little mind to the growing crowd of human admirers. The lighting was perfect and our subjects were close and cooperative. This sighting was a great improvement on my life encounter back in August. I’m always grateful for the opportunity to get to know a bird a little better.

There were plenty of other shorebirds probing the puddles. A confiding Greater Yellowlegs associated loosely with the godwits, and flocks of Dunlin alternated between dozing and darting around to snag earthworms and insects.

A Long-billed Dowitcher and a Pectoral Sandpiper were among the less common highlights present. Ring-billed Gulls hung around the periphery, periodically chasing down Dunlin in an effort to steal their hard-won prey. A female Northern Pintail among the Mallards and Black Ducks was also a nice surprise.

Out in the parking lot proper, I spied a large loafing flock of mixed gulls. As I scanned the assemblage, I picked out a smaller, darker bird resting on the pavement. The American Golden-Plover eventually wandered over to join a crew of Black-bellied Plovers, offering a great opportunity to compare these similar species side by side. I have a soft spot for Golden-Plovers, the bird that earned the 500th spot on my life list, and this was the best view I’ve had all year.

When I finally pried myself away from the shorebird spectacle, I departed Heckscher for Swan Lake in East Patchogue. A Eurasian Wigeon had been reported from this location during the week, and I was hoping to secure that species for my year list. I thoroughly checked every corner of the lake from every possible vantage point, but it seemed that the foreign visitor had moved on. I found a variety of more expected waterfowl, including pintail, Gadwall, scaup, Ruddy Ducks, and Bufflehead. There were also two strange-looking domestic Mallards with monochrome plumage, and swans were appropriately abundant. Once I was satisfied that the wigeon was gone rather than hidden, I turned my car back towards Nassau.

My final stop for the day was Jones Beach, where I found high numbers of sparrows and still more lingering shorebirds. A White-rumped Sandpiper and a very late Stilt Sandpiper brought my outing’s total of waders up to 10. Cracking double digit shorebirds in November on Long Island is pretty exceptional. I walked down the beach to the jetty, where flocks of terns were swirling and diving in pursuit of bait fish. A Harbor Seal and small numbers of sea ducks were among the first signs of winter that I observed, contrasting starkly with the warm weather and delayed migrants. There were also some feeding Humpback Whales observed nearby in the morning, but they had been replaced by fishing boats and jet skis by the time I reached the area. Content with my successful day of exploration, I headed home.

The forecast called for sustained easterly winds overnight and a shift to the southeast just before dawn. Even though the projected windspeed wasn’t too high, the direction was nearly optimal for pushing seabirds near to shore. I decided to do a sunrise seawatch from Robert Moses in the hopes of spotting something interesting. The gusts ended up being stronger than predicted, and I arrived at the coast to find a lively, birdy scene. Ken was already present with scope trained on the water, and we were later joined by Doug, Bob, and Sarah. Thousands of scoters, mostly Black with a handful of White-winged and Surf, were winging their way across the horizon. Gannets were plunge diving everywhere we looked, with conservative counts still reaching the high hundreds. I briefly spotted a shearwater cruising by beyond the breakers, and I was hoping for a Manx to add to my 2017 tally. We eventually confirmed the identity of two Great Shearwaters circling the fishing boats, a nice find at this time of year. There were surprisingly few gulls and no jaegers to be seen, but I was glad that I woke up early to survey the ocean. I returned inland once the action began to slow around 9 AM, pausing at Jones and Hendrickson en route to my house.

The weekend’s final adventure began well after sunset on Sunday night. Late fall is the peak migration season for owls, and I was pretty eager to catch up with one after several months without encountering any. Many birders begin searching for owls in earnest after Halloween, a fitting unofficial kickoff to the owling season. I’d heard through the grapevine that some of the smallest and most inconspicuous members of my favorite family had already been discovered in our region, and I knew a fantastic spot to try my luck. After trudging along the dark trails at Stillwell Woods Park, I paused to offer a call to the night. I didn’t have to wait long before a response echoed through the shadowed forest, an eerie, rising wail. It was impossible to see the source of the noise in the gloom, but the keening cry told me all I needed to know. Saw-whet Owls are back. The adrenaline rush that comes with successful owling is one of the most unique feelings birding can provide. The exciting challenge of locating these spectral nocturnal predators, combined with the instinctive, gnawing unease that takes hold of the subconscious in the darkness, is an unparalleled experience. Despite the continuing shorebird diversity and the unseasonably high temperatures, the little Saw-whet’s return is a big reminder that winter is well on its way.

Year List Update, November 5 – 397 Species

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Greenshanks Was My Delight

One birder’s regulars are another birder’s rarities. Every bird comes from somewhere, and a species that may be quite abundant in its home region can spark a frenzy of excitement by showing up in an unexpected place. Rarity is relative, and the desirability of a given target often depends on your geographical point of view. Take, for example, the Common Greenshank. This shorebird earned its name due to its widespread distribution as well as its viridescent gams, with populations breeding across Eurasia and wintering in Africa, Australia, and southern Asia. Occupying a ecological niche similar to our familiar Greater Yellowlegs, Greenshanks are frequently observed in marshes throughout the Old World. Even in North America, Tringa nebularia is listed as a mere Code 3 bird due to the nearly annual occurrence of off-track migrants in the far western Aleutian Islands of Alaska. Last week’s report of a sighting in New Jersey, however, was decidedly uncommon. There are only a handful of records in history for the species on the Atlantic coast of the continent, and this individual was found in a readily accessible birding hotspot, Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge. Hordes of twitchers descended on the site, and spectacular chaos ensued.

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Still smarting from my missed connection in Connecticut, I initially grumbled that the Monday discovery of the bird was not conducive to chasing. When the weekend rolled around and the Greenshank was still being reported regularly, Brendan reached out to me to see if I was interested in going for it. As if he needed to ask! We set out ahead of sunrise on Saturday, making good time in our journey along the Belt Parkway, through Staten Island, and south towards Atlantic City. Tom Ford-Hutchinson had set up a group messaging system to help coordinate search efforts, and an early morning update informed us that our quarry had been relocated along the southern edge of the wildlife drive loop. We reached the Brigantine Unit of the refuge just before 9 AM, paying the entrance fee and making our way out the road. Our arrival at the observation spot was met by a huge crowd of double parked vehicles blocking our path forward on the one-way road along the dike. Overheard whisperings suggested that the bird had flown north, and messages on the group chat confirmed that the European visitor had gone missing. As the gridlock began to loosen up, we continued along the loop to the “dogleg,” a bend in the northern dike where the bird was originally found.

There were a lot of familiar faces out on the hunt, and throughout the morning we attempted to keep one another informed of the latest reports and rumors. An hour ticked by without any sign of our target, and then suddenly a flurry of conflicting updates came in all at once. Friends called us with news that a group further up the road was on the bird, while someone on the chat chimed in to say that it was back at the south side. When we approached the closer alleged vantage point, the cry went up that it was flying. Brendan and I followed the directions of those tracking it, and I managed to get my binoculars on a small, tight flock of shorebirds looping out over the pool. The Greenshank was probably in my view, but the birds were so poorly lit and distant that I couldn’t discern anything that would clinch the ID. They settled down in the northeast corner of the compound, and the chat users squabbled about whether the bird was or wasn’t currently in view. Brendan suggested that we keep driving, and we could search from both locations if necessary. By the time we made it back to the southern drive, Tom confirmed that the bird had flown in from the northeast and landed once again near the earlier spot. It took some careful scanning of the assembled Greater Yellowlegs, but one of our neighbors finally managed to get a bead on the bird.

With my newest lifer set squarely in my scope view, I took some time to admire my prize. Even at such a great distance, the paler plumage of the Common Greenshank caused it to glow brightly among its dingy gray companions. The water was too deep for us to see the bird’s signature lower extremities, but it took flight several times as the flocks shuffled around, showing off the telltale white wedge pattern on its back. Goal achieved, Brendan and I exchanged congratulations. Before leaving Brigantine behind us, we took note of some of the other wildlife in the area. A calling flyby American Golden-Plover was a welcome surprise, and we tallied hundreds of ducks and shorebirds foraging on the expansive pools. These were repeatedly terrorized by a young Peregrine Falcon, and nearly 50 other species were observed during our visit. Satisfied with our successful chase, with bid the Greenshank farewell and began the return trip home.

A LeConte’s Sparrow was apparently found at Pelham Bay in the Bronx while we were searching the marshes of New Jersey, but we agreed that fighting traffic to seek out such an unreliable skulker late in the day was not a super appealing option. Thus, the sparrow continues to make a convincing case for status as my number one nemesis. Brendan wanted to beef up his county totals on the way back to Long Island, so we stopped at a couple of sites around Staten Island to do some local listing. Arbutus Lake hosted a flotilla of Gadwall, and Great Kills Park added a number of coastal and woodland species to our Richmond county lists. As we drove past Midland Beach, the calls of Royal Terns prompted us to pause and have a look-see. Word on the street was that a huge loafing flock had been hanging around in the area, an impressive sight considering the typically low densities of these seabirds in our region. The reports were absolutely true, and we counted upwards of 250 individuals resting on the sand just over the dune from the parking lot. We finally drove back over the Verrazano Bridge and enjoyed a relatively painless cruise down the Belt.

Brendan dropped me off back at home, and we thanked one another for the companionship on this exciting adventure. The Greenshank was certainly worth the time and effort that it took to track it down, and the spectacle of the situation won’t soon be forgotten. I’m sure that I will see this species again on future trips to Europe and beyond. Indeed, I will probably get to meet them at closer range and in greater numbers. There’s just something special about encountering birds in unexpected and unusual circumstances, though. The thrill that comes with surprise, shared lifers from faraway lands is a crucial part of the birding experience. That joy of experiencing a brand new rarity is something we all have in common.

Year List Update, October 28 – 397 Species (+ Common Greenshank)

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Down for LeConte

I took it pretty easy this past weekend. Friday night was full of relaxation and lounging, and I treated myself by sleeping in on Saturday. Edem and Kelsey met me in Brooklyn later in the day, and we had a chance to catch up over drinks and food. I managed to stay awake and alert throughout the evening, probably because I was no longer burning the candle at both ends. Before I turned in and headed to bed, I noted a listserv post about an extralimital rarity report. A LeConte’s Sparrow had been sighted and photographed at Cove Island Wildlife Sanctuary in Stamford, Connecticut, not far from where Miriam works at Cornell University Veterinary Specialists. This secretive bird is rarely encountered in our region, so I figured chasing it was worth the effort.

There were plenty of other birders already in position when I arrived at about 9 AM. Unfortunately, no one had observed the bird since the previous evening. I settled in for a wait, hoping that the abundance of eager eyes and ears would make finding our target a matter of time. While we surveyed the site, there were plenty of other critters around to keep us entertained. I recorded a blend of forest-dwelling birds and shoreline species at this coastal location. Wild Turkeys joined large flocks of Mourning Doves at a nearby feeding station, and crowds of both crows were heard calling from the parking lot. A few flyovers spiced up the mix, including a lingering Osprey and squadrons of Monk Parakeets.

The assembled naturalists were generally friendly and conversational, which helped to pass the time as we watched for our quarry. At times, however, the chatter was a bit too loud for those of us listening for the bird’s quiet calls. Initially high spirits began to fade as midday approached, and the original finder commented that the sparrow had shown twice by noon the previous day. One by one, birders departed from the park until I was the only person left. Standing alone in the tall, swaying grass of the meadow, I found myself listening and looking much more intently. During my vigil, I was visited by a variety of creepy-crawlies. Common Buckeye, Fiery Skipper, and the continuing spectacle of Monarch migration were among the butterfly highlights. I was also kept company by a mantis that fluttered from stem to stem, searching for prey along the edge of the trail.

A cooperative little Nashville Warbler appeared on the scene once things quieted down in the early afternoon. This bird had been hanging around the area for the past few days, and the LeConte’s Sparrow was discovered during a photoshoot with this dawdling migrant. Some birders eventually returned to the sanctuary, both familiar faces from earlier and a handful of new arrivals. Most were happy to see the warbler, pausing to watch its antics as it foraged among the dry vegetation.

Several times throughout the day, I heard chip notes that sounded promising enough to get my attention. Most often the noises were heard when other sparrows flew into a patch of dense cover, seemingly disturbing another bird and prompting a response. LeConte’s Sparrows are notorious skulkers, often unwilling to show themselves unnecessarily. It’s possible that the wayward traveler was still present, lurking in the thickest part of the thicket, but I never managed to get a glimpse of the mystery voice’s source or even confirm the barely-heard calls as diagnostic. After nearly 8 hours standing post, I called it quits. I’d seen plenty of Song, Swamp, and Savannah Sparrows throughout the day, but the LeConte’s had defeated me. What’s more, I later found out that a Sabine’s Gull had been reported just down the trail from where I sat all day, but only one individual saw it and word didn’t get out in time. You can’t win ’em all! Despite these frustrating dips, I couldn’t complain about my time out in the field. I still had a restful, pleasant Sunday, and I wrapped up my adventure by heading over to Stamford proper to see Miriam and grab some Dinosaur BBQ for dinner. It doesn’t take much to keep me happy.

I now find myself in an interesting situation with the sneaky LeConte’s Sparrow. I’ve had a possible close call with this tricky target once in the past. On the final day of my February 2016 Texas trip, Col and I visited the Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge. We were on a tight schedule in order to make my flight home, and it certainly had an impact on the morning’s birding. In addition to missing the eponymous fowl that call the refuge home, we briefly spotted a stubby, pale sparrow that darted across the trail and dove into cover. It had the look of a LeConte’s or one of its close relatives, but we were short on time and failed to relocate the tantalizingly unidentifiable bird. Two missed connections, even with a failed stakeout of this length, is not quite enough to qualify as a capital letter Nemesis Bird just yet…but Ammodramus leconteii is certainly the most notable species gunning for that honor at the moment. For the time being, I will always remember this as the day I ALMOST caught Doctor LeConte’s Sparrow!

Year List Update, October 24 – 396 Species

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Sparrow Spotting

As the numbers of passing warblers and shorebirds begin to dwindle, before the wintering geese and finches arrive in force, sparrow season peaks in southern New York. October is prime time for seeking out these sneaky, streaky, subtle birds in the tangled vegetation of thickets and wetlands. I kicked off my mid-month weekend with a Saturday morning trip to Plumb Beach, now an annual tradition. I was greeted by Song and Savannah Sparrows along the edge of the trails from the parking lot, along with a handful of Monarch Butterflies feeding on wildflowers. The primary quarry for the outing, however, was hiding in the marsh itself. My search led me to the far eastern edge of the property where a tidal creek empties into the inlet. When I reached the outflow, I found some local birders and an assemblage of furtive shadows flitting through the swaying grasses. A handful of the visible individuals could be confidently identified as Nelson’s Sparrows, the main reason I visit Plumb Beach with any consistency.

There were over half a dozen sparrows scrambling about through the area, and many provided surprisingly good looks. Unfortunately, clear views are not always enough to sort Nelson’s Sparrows from the increasingly common hybrid offspring that result from their pairing with Saltmarsh Sparrows. Authorities previously considered these two populations as the same species, and it seems that the birds may still. I photographed a number of tweeners with a confusing mix of characteristics, including breast streaking that was blurry enough for Nelson’s but extensive enough for Saltmarsh. I’m glad that eBird has an option for reporting these unidentifiable members of the complex.

I met up with Miriam later in the day, and we took a brief jaunt over to Hofstra University. Although Miriam spends plenty of time studying on her campus, our goals for the afternoon were not so scholarly. I’d heard word of a Clay-colored Sparrow that was seen in a mixed species flock near the field hockey stadium. Since I needed it for the year and she needed it for her life list, we decided to make chase. I picked up a promising call note in the ornamental trees along the eastern fence, but Miriam was the first to get a visual. The sleepy sparrow was nestled against the trunk in some dense branches, chirping intermittently as it gradually drifted off. The bird looked bright-eyed and healthy when it was alert, but it seemed like it was just plumb tuckered out. Super adorable. We left the little visitor to its nap and took our leave.

I was out and about again on Sunday, and I followed another Clay-colored report straight to another Clay-colored, this one sighted by Mike Z at the Jones Beach hedgerow. A local Scout troop was camping at the Coast Guard Station, and there were still some hungry mosquitos around, but avian activity was fairly low. I scanned the gulls at the West End 2 lot on my way out, pausing to photograph a cluster of Lesser Black-backs among the loafing flock of more common species.

The winds off the ocean were decently strong despite a subpar direction of origin, so I decided to put in a few hours seawatching at Robert Moses. I was joined by Pat L for a decent chunk of my vigil, and I was happy with the results of my efforts. Concentrations of gannets and scoters are starting to increase again, and we spied a few pods of Bottlenose Dolphins moving through the surf. I noticed a distant Great Cormorant flying with a Double-crest, and Pat pointed out a shearwater on the horizon that was too far to confirm our suspicions that it was a Cory’s. Maybe not the most spectacular seawatch ever, but a perfectly pleasant time staring at the edge of the water.

Landbird action remained notably unimpressive throughout the morning. I did a quick circuit of relatively underbirded spots on my way back west, just to see if there was anything noteworthy lurking about on this quiet day. Captree Island hosted some lazy egrets, and the Jones Tower Peregrines were in position when I passed in both directions. I ended up inadvertently flushing a large flock of Green-winged Teal off the hidden pools at Tobay Beach’s JFK Sanctuary, and their take-off startled the roosting night-herons into the air. A Peregrine appeared and repeatedly stooped into the fray, making me feel even worse about my accidental disturbance, but it missed its mark on all attempts. The waterfowl eventually settled out of sight, and the falcon continued on to try its luck elsewhere.

These lazy, easygoing fall weekends are a real treat during the early portion of the school year. The cycle of migration marks the passage of time even as the work weeks begin to blur together. Taking the time to get out and explore my local patches helps to keep me refreshed and sharp so I’m prepared to do my best for my students and coworkers. Free time well-spent is a valuable thing, in my opinion, at least!

Year List Update, October 15 – 396 Species (+ Nelson’s Sparrow, Clay-colored Sparrow)

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